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Dr. Jamie Williamson Headshot

Value of Liberal Arts Education Worth the Private and Public Investment

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"Ability to defend the value of a college education grounded in the liberal arts" should be part of a university president's job description.

In the last few weeks, I've been asked by legislators, civic club members, and alumni to explain why quality four-year bachelor's programs should receive state funding; why grounding in the liberal arts is important since it is not job related; and, what am I going to do to make sure that our students choose majors that are "practical" rather than impractical like art history (the questioner's example, not mine).

These types of complex questions seem always to come in public settings when I know that whatever I say is likely to be tweeted, reported in the news, or made part of meeting minutes. So, I flip in to "teacher mode," put on my "what a great question" face, look them straight in the eye and say, "Thank you for asking such an important question and giving me the opportunity to explain why I think there is nothing quite as practical as a bachelor's degree that is grounded in the liberal arts"

Let's start with the basics.
For those interested in job security: Leading indicators show that by 2018 -- in just four years -- 65 percent of U.S. jobs will require some level of post-secondary education. This, of course, also means that 35 percent will not. So, a college degree is not for everyone. But, remember, people who have a bachelor's degree earn substantially more over their lifetime and are much less likely to become unemployed than people who don't have a bachelor's degree. In addition, if they lose their job, people with a bachelor's degree spend less time unemployed than people without a bachelor's degree.

For people interested in work-force development: Employers prefer to hire people with the intellectual and social competencies produced by education grounded in the liberal arts. Results from the study "It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success" show that nearly all employers indicated that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than the prospective employee's undergraduate major.

This American Association of Colleges and Universities study also showed that employers give hiring preference to those who demonstrate ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills, the capacity for continued new learning, and the ability to contribute innovation in the workplace -- all of which also are part of the mix of essential learning outcomes delivered through a strong, engaging liberal arts curriculum.

For those interested in strong communities: Exposure to liberal arts helps students understand the world around them and the diverse values and concerns of the people who make up that world. Through experiential education and reflection students learn to understand that their own success is intertwined with the success of others. They learn the value of civic engagement and develop the true desire to invest their time, talent, and treasure in helping others. And, they gain the emotional intelligence required to sift through the cacophony of media messages to find reasoned arguments that support real civic progress, not one-sided agendas.

So, again I say -- as an individual, what could be more practical than an investment that makes you more likely to get a job, earn a higher salary, and be prepared to change jobs as the work environment evolves? As a state or nation, what could be more practical than an investment in an educational system that produces highly qualified workers who care about and are engaged in their communities?

To me, it's a "no brainer" -- but I don't say that part in public.